On September 12, the writer H. L. Mencken would be 128 years old. That’s not a particularly noteworthy or auspicious anniversary, I realize. I mention it only because it is around this date that I once again venture over to the shelf, pull down one of his books, and amuse myself.
(This is also the time of year for the gathering of the Mencken Society. Every year, on or around Mencken’s birthday, a small group of professors, scholars, librarians, geeks, geezers, and gawkers, from all walks of life and social strata, get together at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore to compare reading notes, brag about rare book collections, sermonize, theorize, and otherwise examine the corpse to find new ways to explain the so-called “Sage of Baltimore” to the rest of the world. In other words, it’s an assemblage of exactly the kind of pecksniffs, idolaters, and ignoramuses that Mencken would have despised. I can say this because I, too, am a devotee of this pecksniffery and have attended the annual meeting off and on for nearly 20 years.)
In fact, I’ve been reading and rereading the works of H. L. Mencken ever since high school. My father also is an avid Menckenian, and he provided me with my first encounter. He was introduced to HLM in college and decided it would be fun to share his enthusiasm with his young son. So one Christmas he gave me a copy of The American Scene, a collection of writings selected by Mencken’s old pal, Huntington Cairns. (Sometime later I took possession his copy of The Vintage Mencken, compiled by another of Mencken’s cronies, Alistair Cooke. I’m particularly fond of this volume because his class notes are scrawled on the inside front cover). My father also was drawn to Mencken because he shares the writer’s distinctive three initials, as do I.
So, over vacation, riding in the car on the way to visit my grandmother in the Outer Banks of southern North Carolina, I thumbed through this paunchy little volume. I vividly remember the bizarre entry titles, such as “The Divine Afflatus,” “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” or “The Sahara of the Bozart,” puzzling over where to start reading. I can also remember not being able to decipher much of anything at first and wondering who this man was and why, since he seemed so venomously critical, would my father like him so much. Consider this sentence, not even half way into the first paragraph of the essay, “On Being an American,” which opens the book: “It is one of my fiercest and most sacred beliefs, … that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting….” Or “the American people constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages….” Then, a little farther down the page, he states, “Yet here I stand, unshaken and undespairing, a loyal and devoted Americano, … a better citizen, I daresay, certainly a less murmurous and exigent one, than thousands who … hold the Supreme Court to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and belong ardently to every Rotary Club, Ku Klux Klan, and Anti-Saloon League, … and who believe with the faith of little children that one of Our Boys, taken at random, could dispose in a fair fight of ten Englishmen, twenty Germans, thirty Frogs, forty Wops, fifty Japs, or a hundred Bolshevikis.”
I thought: OK, huh? Why is this man saying these things? How can he get away with saying these things? What do all these things mean?
When I asked my father, “Is he serious?” Yes, he answered, “Mencken is always serious. But he is also always funny.” And that’s one of the reasons I continue to go back and read his writings. Mencken was always poking fun to make a point, to draw attention to something he fervently believed in. And, though it took me some years and lots more reading, I have come to appreciate that he is, at the core, a funny, funny man. When I need some comic relief, I don’t have to look far: “It is hard to believe a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.”
Mencken is also very fertile ground, and I could spend many posts discussing the many Menckens — Mencken the newspaper reporter and editor (he helped to create the Baltimore Evening Sun), Mencken the language expert (he wrote a multi-volume treatise on the origins and significance of the American vernacular), Mencken the literary critic (he launched the careers of many of this country’s most famous writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser), Mencken the music lover, Mencken the gastronome (he called the Chesapeake Bay “an immense protein factory”), Mencken the satirist (he wrote a bogus history of the bathtub that still gets quoted today), etc.
He was also fascinated with politics, maniacally so, and his writings on this subject are some of his best-loved and most reviled. And this is one of the other reasons I was drawn back to the bookshelf this year. He loved to poke holes in the great windbag of democracy, with a capital D, and the political system it inspires. Especially during convention and election season, which he entered every time, as he once wrote, “like a full-rigged ship before a spanking breeze.” He would have a field day this year, with women and minorities standing in the center ring of what he called the “Carnival of Buncombe.”
Mencken wrote habitually, voluminously, and (admittedly) often just for the sheer joy of loading the chamber of his pen and pulling the trigger, just to hear it go bang! His favorite targets were politicians and lawyers, and his aim was deadly accurate. For example, consider this: “a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” Or this: a politician is “not one who serves the common weal; he is simply one who preys upon the commonwealth.” Or this: “The politician, at his ideal best, never even remotely approximated in practice, is a necessary evil; at worst he is an almost intolerable nuisance.” It’s hard not to quibble with, let alone laugh at, these sentiments (which, by the way, follow nearly successively from the same paragraph in the essay, “The Politician”).
Although he was always ready for a brawl, Mencken never picked on anyone who couldn’t fight back. And, for the most part, when he swung his fists at a public figure, he kept the gloves on. But occasionally his pieces could be exceptionally cruel. Consider the scathing “In Memoriam: W. J. B.,”which was published the day after Bryan’s death at Dayton, Tennessee. And he found Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a perfectly formed nail and he hammered at him incessantly (and often embarrassingly) for nearly all of his terms in office.
Need your own introduction to Mencken? I think a good place to start is a biography, and there are plenty. I can recommend 2 of the most recently published. I enjoyed The Skeptic, by arts critic Terry Teachout, which provides an insightful, highly readable (if highly opinionated) consideration of Mencken’s place in the literary and journalistic pantheon. And I am still reading Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ tome, Mencken: The American Iconoclast, which though it delights and moves is almost insurmountable (nearly 650 tightly printed pages) and overwhelmingly factual.
Better is to hear Mencken’s story told straight from the horse’s, er, mouth. His “Days” trilogy is a great romp. Although memoirists are no more trustworthy than biographers, any or all of Mencken’s three autobiographies (Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days) are as entertaining as anything produced in the spirit of the Great American Humorist, like Mark Twain. I have also read and enjoyed Mencken’s posthumous memoirs, such as My Life as Author and Editor and 35 Years of Newspaper Work. Hopkins Press has done a terrific job of keeping many of these works in print, including the posthumously published A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, an eclectic collection of writings selected by the author himself. (You should be able to find the first volume, published during his lifetime, at an online used book retailer, as well.)
So, over this next week, I encourage you to take several actions: pick up one of Mencken’s books, open it at random, read a few sentences, and be prepared to laugh and shake your head. Or, if you live nearby, head to the main branch of Mencken’s beloved Pratt library to attend the Mencken Day festivities. At the very least, on his birthday, follow his wishes as outlined in an epitaph he wrote for The Smart Set magazine: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me, and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”